Digging For Britain: Tragic Roman secrets in Buckinghamshire

Friday 20 August 2010, 13:06

Dr Alice Roberts Dr Alice Roberts Presenter

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I think one of the most exciting things about the Digging For Britain series is that it shows archaeology in action.

Rather than just presenting history as a series of accepted facts we're seeing how the interpretation develops, during excavations and careful analysis in the lab.

Dr Alice Roberts with some of the Roman coins excavated from Frome

Excavations we've been following in the series that have also hit the news include the discovery of the massive hoard of Roman coins in Frome, and the bizarre and chilling evidence of infanticide from the Yewden Roman villa site in Buckinghamshire.

Both these discoveries are featured in detail in episode one, Romans. The Yewden Roman Villa site was excavated ages ago - in 1912 - but archaeologist Jill Eyers has been taking a fresh look at the finds from that dig.

She knew there had been numerous infant burials around the site - 97 in total. In fact, infant 'burial' sounds a bit too respectful for what had actually been found - the remains of infants shoved unceremoniously into pits in the ground.

When Jill found the infant bones themselves in the museum stores, she sent them to Simon Mays, human osteologist at English Heritage.

He ascertained that all the infants had died around the time of birth - and suddenly the burials seemed even more suspicious.

Ninety seven infants all dying at birth: death from natural causes was now extremely unlikely.

When I looked at the bones, I also spotted what looked like cut-marks on one of them - the infant's body may have been dismembered. A horrible thought. It's very sad to think about those 97 little babies who never got the chance to grow up.

And so it does look like those babies were put to death. We know the Romans practised infanticide, but this was baby-killing on a massive scale.

Jill thought the villa may have been a brothel. It's an interesting hypothesis, and one which may stand the test of further investigations as Jill continues to explore the mystery of Yewden Villa.

As a new mum myself, I felt the sadness around Yewden particularly intensely. I'm so used to looking at human remains but these little skeletons were so much more than just objects: they were telling us a dark secret from the past, and they were all that was left of those tiny human lives that were extinguished so brutally.

Were they unloved and unnamed when they were placed in the ground? Or - perhaps even worse - had they been eagerly awaited by their mothers but born into a society that thwarted that natural love and protective urge? What had those mothers gone through?

I'm not an archaeologist myself, but I'm certainly allied to the field in a number of ways. I'm an anatomist and an osteoarchaeologist, or human bone expert, and I've specialised in looking at disease in old bones.

Dr Alice Roberts with Dave Crisp, the man who discovered the horde of coins in Frome

I've had a strange career path, I suppose, but I've enjoyed every minute of it. Starting as a medical doctor, I branched off to teach clinical anatomy and study old bones, and ending up working in television and writing books. I still teach anatomy and look at the odd skeleton, though.

My favourite moment from the series was being able to look at the skeletons from the Mary Rose, which features in the Tudor programme, the final episode.

I clearly remember watching the ship being raised on Blue Peter. And more recently, I had wanted to look at the skeletons for my PhD, which was about problems around the shoulder joint (I suspected the Mary Rose archers might have suffered from something called rotator cuff disease - which afflicts a lot of us in old age, but also affects athletes like cricket bowlers and baseball pitchers in their youth), but I had to stop somewhere.

So this was a really special opportunity for me to check the shoulders of a couple of the individuals from the ill-fated ship.

You'll have to watch the series to see what I found, but now I want to look at all of them. This was one of the great things about doing this series. I was making a television programme but also getting to indulge my own curiosity - meeting fascinating people, seeing interesting sites, and being able to examine ancient artefacts and bones.

Dr Alice Roberts is the presenter of Digging For Britain.

Digging For Britain
is on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC Two and at different times on BBC HD. You can watch the first episode on the BBC iPlayer.

To find out all future episodes of Digging For Britain, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

For more information on Roman history, please visit the BBC History site.

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    Comment number 1.

    On the meticulous records of the original Yewden finds, distances are quoted in Imperial measure. One of the curators, looking at a record card, mistook feet for inches. This could cause problems in interpreting these records.

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    Comment number 2.

    Infanticide in the Greco-Roman world may seem alien to us, though far too many "modern" humans have chosen to kill their babies.
    But infanticide was common in antiquity. Some babies were disposed of by 'exposure'. Others by more aggressive forms of murder. There were many Roman houses where dead babies lay under the floorboards, or in the “backyard”.
    Rome itself was founded on exposure. Romulus and Remus were dumped -- to be found by the wolf, the lupa. (One translation for Lupa is prostitute'.)
    A papyrus letter from husband to wife in Roman Egypt, asks her to "let the baby live, if it is male; if it is female, expose it'.
    Jewish Writer Philo, wrote about the practice, explaining that some people strangle or suffocate babies, while others expose them (after which they are just as likely to be eaten by wild animals as rescued by another human being).
    We are dealing with different times, a different definition of "humanity", but we still have ongoing debates about when a baby becomes a person with full rights. For the Romans a baby became a person when it was formally "accepted" into the community. Roman law code, The XII Tables, insists that: "a noticeably deformed child should be quickly killed".
    Females could be an expensive commodity. One (or two) might be useful, could be married off to everyone's advantage; but dowries cost money and there often occurred a serious financial drain. Also, one could expect more work out of a male child, and females could not replace the males lost in battle.
    Many babies were likely exposed in the hope that they would be rescued. The story of Romulus and Remus, as I mentioned, being one. In addition to Buckinghamshore, there must be hundreds of thousands of baby skeletons across the previous Roman empire.

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    Comment number 3.

    Might there be another reason for there being 97 infant burials rather than it being a brothel. Could it not have been where a midwife lived (i.e. a maternity hospital)?

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    Comment number 4.

    Just posting a comment too Tony and Emma's comments. Yes, Tony I noticed that there was a little error in the narrative with the label wording. Don't worry - we know our feet from our metres. It is easy to slip up verbally when being filmed and I must admit to not noticing it while it was being said, only afterwards on the TV. We have the correct measurements going into our interpretations. There is now a villa reconstruction and a new plot (in metres) that you can see on the Chiltern Archaeology website (starting at [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator])
    With regard to Emma's comment on alternative theories to the brothel. Yes, the borthel was only one suggestion which fits the bill as it were, but we have very little proof at the present moment. However, I am quickly homing in on more substantial information with regard to an interpretation - don't want to spill the beans too early, but this might be more amazing than the first theory! I had looked into maternity hospitals though, which is a good suggestion. There is no evidence to support this on either, but in fact there is a written record (from Rome) that women had babies in their own homes with a female companion/attendant. So evidence so far leads us away from this one!
    Jill

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    Comment number 5.

    re. programme thurs 26th. Just my two pence worth. 1. the Ibis artwork looked to me like a pelican as I could see what looked like the gular pouch drawn below it. Also, re. the animal bones in the Orkney house, this looked to me like cavity wall insulation! Modern builders use metal ties to hold together the two walls, but why not use animal bones!

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    Comment number 6.

    re. programme thurs 26th. Professor Stringer, I am sure must be well aware of work carried out in 1927 by J.Reid Moir, a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Inst. and President of the Prehistoric Soc. of East Anglia who made even more startling finds in this part of the country. For example, a sawn piece of wood "in situ" within the Cromer Forest Bed, dated at between 0.8-1.75 million years but also a whole range of bone tools, incised bones and a whole flint industry!

    Better yet Moir found even older stone implements (not just flakes) from below the Red Crag (pliocene to eocene) over 2.5 million years old!!

    I find it very strange that Moirs work is seldom mentioned. Could it be that this would pose something of a problem for paleoanthropolgists who are convinced our tool making hominid ancestors (homohablis type) should still have been confined to their African homeland!

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    Comment number 7.

    Dr Roberts was puzzled by the cattle heads used as part of the structure of the foundations in the building in (?) Orkney (BBC2 26 Aug).
    She might be interested to read 'Structures or why things don't fall down' by JE Gordon (Penguin) at page 191.
    The idea is that thick walls are more stable (especially important in a windy climate - assume it was just as windy then as now...)and in order to provide that thickness without excessive weight - and also to find a use for an increasing number of skulls as the years rolled by (assuming people enjoyed their steak and chips then as now)- they were ideal material to provide bulk for the wall space.
    Prof Gordon makes the point that, in the ancient world, empty wine amphorae were used for similar reasons. It was too expensive to ship them back empty, so a surplus ended up in the importing country or port where they were incorporated into buildings.

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    Comment number 8.

    I was not convinced that the number of infant burials indicated there must have been a brothel. It is a plausable explanation but not definitive..it would be appropriate to always emphasise that theories are just speculation.

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    Comment number 9.

    Everyone was shocked at the thought that infanticide was the answer to why 97 babies of the same age were found. I found this puzzling and wonder how they view abortion.

    Millions of babies have been killed in this country before they are born. The only difference between what is happening now and what is thought to have happened then is time.

    Someone remarked that they were not considered to be human until they were 2. Now they are not considered to be human until they are born and there are those who want this changed so that they are not considered human until later, thereby allowing infanticide.

    Given the above the Romans were not so different from us.

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    Comment number 10.

    I was interested in the map of Britain in the second programme. Is there anywhere I can have a look at a copy on-screen? There was a large river coming out around Happisburgh. It looked like the Thames but I thought that this came out further down East Anglia at that time when the ice blocked its old channel.

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    Comment number 11.

    I visited the Links of Noltland while staying on Westray in the late 1990's - I knew nothing of its history but have never felt the tangible 'weight' of the past before or since than I did standing on that remote and windy beach. It felt like being watched and took a while to shake off the feeling. Seeing its secrets being revealed was fascinating to watch.

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    Comment number 12.

    Dear Dr Alice
    Last week,I had meant to tell you how much I enjoyed the first prog of digging for Britain, but didn't get around to it. Today I read A A Gill's review of the programme in the Sunday Times and have been galvanised.

    You did a great job - please don't be put off by his apparent need to boost and defend his ego every minute of his waking life. He's the best friend of Jeremy Clarkson; there's little more to be said.

    His understanding of archaeology being zilch, he could only nitpick about 'empty holes' and comment on your hair and teeth. Utterley without understanding and completely banal. If you read all the other reviews of TV programmes in his article, you would have noticed that every single reference to anyone female was exemplary of a 1950s', single Yorkshireman's views of women. Believe me, I know - I was there. I cannot understand why the Sunday Times pays him a single bean, unless they think it's fun to have a provocative neanderthal on their staff.

    As for me, I loved your enthusiasm, your spirit of adventure and your knowledge, all of which A A Gill lacks, but would never admit to. I understood your careful explanations about 'holes' and how they provide evidence, shame on him for not even trying. He's proably too busy keeping his end up as a 'G' list celebrity.

    As an archaeologist from the 80s, who's not worked in the field since, I'm very happy to admit I know little about modern techniques. But I suupect, until there's a national database, decisions will be made at sites which are unrelated to data collected elsewhere, and interpretations will be made which other local knowledge disagrees with.

    Keep going, Dr Alice, and ignore such ignorance as A A Gill displays. I think you're doing a fantastic job in encouraging folk to be interested in archaeology, you are an excellent presenter and I, for one, intend to watch every single programme with huge anticipation.

    Power to the archaeologists!!

    Gezza

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    Comment number 13.

    Dear Dr Alice
    Firstly, thank you for an excellent programme, Digging For Britain.

    I have watched several TV programmes on Historical Digs, but I am unsure if I can mention the programme... but this programme is just as good.

    I watched with interest the findings on the Programme about the Orkneys, at Westry. I am referring to the finding of a small lady like figure within the dig, which I think was called ' wiffee '?
    On the back of the figure, I noticed faint straight lines. I thought that I had seen something similar before, some form of writing.
    I could not hear any mention within the programme of these lines.

    I later checked on the Internet and found some line writing which is called ' Ogham '
    Who ever made the figure, made a great effort to make such straight lines.
    I was wondering if the lines on the back of the figurine could be some form of early writing?
    I have a screen shot of the figurine to compare, but I have no where to send the attachment.
    I would be very interested in your and your colleagues' thoughts?

    Kind regards
    Colin

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    Comment number 14.

    Please cut down - or cut out - the loud and disruptive background music. It ruins so many good programmes without adding anything worthwhile to the content, and Digging for Britain has very good content.

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    Comment number 15.

    Thanks for an excellent program. I have a request, however.

    Please don't turn into Fiona Bruce! Skip the elocution lessons from the Beeb and please don't emphasise "key" words so much; and please, please, please don't smile and wave your hands around all the time.

    Your programme content is fantastic and more than stands on its own, without BBC enhancement.

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    Comment number 16.

    I really enjoy any programme that focuses on early history especially archaeological subjects. Not done at all in recent years by the BBC, who seem to approach history on tv as only a string of of war / battle documentaries with a posh speaking male shouting at camera in a head wind. Awful.
    This is much more wholesome positive social history, but why all the LOUD stirring music trying to 'sex up' the content . It is NOT needed. I think the BBC have had this complaint for about two decades now...falling on deafened ears?
    Just tell the story of the people, such good subjects and sites are covered.
    Then it is such a shame though there is 70% of every episode of Dr Alice talking to camera, Dr Alice walking away from camera, Dr Alice moving into camera...then more talking, describing villages, describing clothes, Dr Alice describing a complicted building or a complex structural layout.
    PLEASE employ an artist to come up with some reconstructions..its all very confusing having to guess at what everything looked like. No more talking head like a lecture please...break it up with possible reconstructions. We
    are sensible enough to know they would be only possible reconstructions...but this is a visual medium here.

    Thanks for a generally good programme though!!

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    Comment number 17.

    I enjoyed episode 3, The Anglo-Saxons, but Alice's critique of the "written records" which she said were written "hundreds of years after" and "smacked of Christian propaganda" wasn't fair to anybody. She dismissed the Venerable Bede saying he wrote a biased account "strongly motivated by his Christian faith". Would this be the same Venerable Bede whose "focus on the history of the organisation of the English church, and on heresies and the efforts made to root them out, led him to exclude the secular history of kings and kingdoms except where a moral lesson could be drawn or where they illuminated events in the church"? (Wikipedia) Moral lessons yes, but saying "Christian propaganda" doesn't acknowledge his "grammar, chronology, and biblical studies [which were] as important as his historical and hagiographical works" (Wikipedia). The good work of early Christians wasn't shown in context with the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Very poor.

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    Comment number 18.

    I think the head of the museum of london has to go back to school. He's made two mistake, Anne of Cleves was Henry's FOURTH wife.

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    Comment number 19.

    not the fith or sixth!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 20.

    I just rushed onto the site to comment on the mistakes about Anne of Cleves. It just made me wonder how accurate the rest of the information was!

 

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